Monday, December 26, 2011

By the Way, Merry Christmas

I'm always suspicious of people who rattle on about how much they hate celebrating Christmas. It's like sitting in the Barcalounger and grumbling about how you stubbed your toe the last time you walked across the living room floor.  Move the ottoman, for God's sake. Rerrange the area rug.  It's your house.

I've had more than the average share of truly miserable Christmases, but I've found, as I advance in age, that it's possible to wrest the holiday away from the past and turn it into something else entirely, without tradition or expectations. Sometimes, it can even be fun. Last year, for example, we lolled around Leah's apartment in Chicago all Christmas Day, went to the movies and then ordered in Chinese. It was a nearly perfect holiday, in my estimation. And this year, while it was nip and tuck there for a while, all turned out well, with a genuine Sam Goldwyn touch.

The Christmas surprise this year was not that we celebrated the holiday in a faux-European cafe in a Beijing hutong, watching Guys and Dolls being projected on a blank wall to a crowd of appreciative expats.  The absolute miracle was that all of us had arrived, together and in one piece, and had managed to find the place.

One stray listing in a Beijing City Weekend magazine had led us to this Christmas Day Folly. It had all seemed like a good idea until we were forced to take two cabs, agreeing to meet Emma and Olivia on a designated street corner in a neighborhood called Gulou Dong Dajie, in the Dongcheng district,which is roughly about the size and population of Iowa.
If I had somehow thought the street corner would look like the corner of Lyndale and Diamond Lake, I was soon disabused of the notion. As Dick, Mary and I skittered out of the taxi and began to look around, it was clear that the scene was more like the opening of a James Bond movie than a starting point for a family outing.  All that was missing was a motorcycle making its getaway and upending a few vegetable stands, and we were ready for Central Casting.

I scanned the crowd in vain, frustrated by Emma's refusal to answer her cell phone, and hearing my mother's voice in my head, muttering something about "white slavery." It would certainly be a challenge to explain Olivia's disappearance to her parents, I realized. I began to form a bit of a spin for them:  "The trip was going really well, right up until then..."

Thank God for O's height, and her hat, because she stood out of the crowd much more than Emma, who has a way of blending in here a lot more than she ever did in Minneapolis. In the fifteen minutes our poky cab driver had lagged behind them, they'd already been accosted by beggars and saved by an English-speaking resident. Olivia had had her picture taken "by someone with a huge Nikkon," she reported, smugly.  I felt as if I could cry with relief.

The trek through the narrow alleyway in search of 44 Baochao Hutong (宝钞胡同44号) seemed minor after that scare. We found it in no time, and while the rest of the gang went off in search of dumplings, I chatted with the owner, a Kurkistani who had partnered in the business with friends from Hong Kong, Spain and Italy. The Italian's grandma, here on a visit, was in the kitchen making gnocchi. Hot wine in hand (thank God; it was about fifty degrees in the place), I chatted with a girl from Ukraine and waited for the movie to start.

There was Nathan Detroit, setting up the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York. There was Miss Adelaide and her chronic cold. Nicely Nicely was told to sit down, he was rocking the boat. And, as I glanced out the uninsulated window at the curved tile roofs, the red lanterns and the occasional passing scooter, there was old Beijing, still looking like a James Bond movie, but a little less overwhelming now that we were all together.

A few hours earlier, as we'd been making our way to the cafe, a young man had approached Emma and asked if he could have a picture taken with us. He needed it for his English class, he explained. I suspected that he just wanted a record of these incredibly pasty and puffy humanish specimens who had wandered into his ancient alleyway. After the photo was snapped and we started to walk away, he hurried behind us, remembering something.  "By the way," he said, "Merry Christmas."

You're not kidding, pal.

Here's a link to the cafe, the next time you're in town. Wear a sweater, order the hot wine and tell them that the puffy white family sent you.

Friday, December 23, 2011

One Day

One day in September 1989, I was at the New Center in Detroit, getting ready for a presentation. There was a new guy there, and I laughed at his jokes. In fact, he made me laugh so hard that we started to attract a bit of negative attention. I still recall Steve Maritz' raised eyebrow.
One day in November 1992, the two of us eloped to Las Vegas, and got married at the Little Church of the West.
One day in June, 1995, I stood at the top of a stone stairway at the Wuhan Foundling Hospital in China. Someone placed a bundle in my arms, and I was holding my daughter. She had red painted fingernails, a circle of red polish in the middle of her forehead, and a very annoyed expression, that, more or less, she has perpetually retained.
One day in July 1997, I refused to believe the results of the home pregancy test, so I tried again. Seven months later, Mary Katherine was born -- almost six pounds, utterly hairless and radiating love from the get-go.
One summer day in 2001, the boys who lived across the alley showed up, as they had been doing since the weather got warm, to see if Emma wanted to play outside.  Behind them was their sister, a solemn-faced little girl who asked me if Mary was available to play. I summoned Mary, and they faced off in the kitchen, deciding to play Barbies in the basement. They haven't, in many senses, ever stopped.
One day in September 2011, Emma left home in the middle of the night to fly to Beijing as a student in School Year Abroad, determined to conquer the language she'd heard only as an infant.
One day in December 2011, the five of us met up at the Marriott Beijing City Wall, ready to make our own crazy quilt version of a Family Christmas.
From where we've come, to where we are now, God Bless Us, Every One.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Where is Mary Poppins When I Need Her?

The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934, but I’m starting to think that she truly was the ultimate light traveler for these times. That bottomless carpetbag would fit in any overhead compartment, and someone who is practically perfect in every way would certainly never have to pay any overweight fee, even if her potted palm tree weighed a ton. If Mary Poppins found herself cooling her well-turned-out heels on a runaway for several hours, she could reach in and pull out a feather bed, or a turkey dinner, or a string quartet to help her pass the time.

I’ve had reason to especially envy Ms. P. of late, since I’m packing for a journey (this thing is too massive to be a mere trip), and I’m wondering how to carry along everything I might need. Sadly, I lack a carpetbag, and possess only a ragtag assortment of cheap and capacious roller bags that I snapped up at garage sales this past summer, anticipating this very day when I would begin to say, “I don’t have enough room in this bag!”

There are some complications to my situation. One is the length of the trip – 18 days. I barely have enough underwear, tshirts and yoga pants to last from one laundry day to another. I anticipate plenty of spot cleaning, plus the opportunity to learn how to say “Laundromat” in Mandarin.

Then, once I’ve gotten my own needs covered, there’s the U.S. ambassador angle to this hoedown. The child who is being visited has requested just a few small reminders of the life she’s left behind, say 25 pounds’ worth, plus other necessities such as contact solution, deep conditioner (“the BLUE pot, Mom, not the white pot”) and gossip magazines. I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know that I can carry five pounds of Kit Kat bars over the border.

There’s also my Mommy self to contend with, an alter personality forceful enough to put the entire United States of Tara to shame. The last time I packed to go to China, I was a blissfully ignorant newbie who had no idea of the many things that could go wrong when on the road with kids – i.e., people for whom I am completely responsible. I don’t think I even packed a travel size bottle of aspirin, just some really cute onesies and enough diapers to handle a number of potential bowel scenarios. This time, I’m hauling along melatonin and mucus reducers and several other mysterious creams, ointments and all-purpose potions. Bring on the venomous Chinese snow snakes, just let me grab the antidote out of my carry-on.

Finally, there’s the Christmas issue, a holiday that will be celebrated one week after our arrival. The three teens in the group will probably have some well-ingrained expectations of how this holiday needs to go down, at least based on their past experience in our spacious homeland. I’m scrambling to tuck in enough tiny bits of festive Yuletide fal-de-ral to help in recreating the holiday from 6,000 miles away, and I’m falling a little bit short at the moment.

If I could just get my hands on a working version of that carpetbag, I could pull out a lovely colonial house, candles blazing in every window, snow gently falling outside. Perhaps I could root around at the bottom and produce a well-trimmed tree, a cozy fire and a load of large, heavy and well-wrapped presents.

It might not be too late to find something on eBay. I’ll just type “magic carpetbag” into the browser bar and see what turns up. But in the meantime, I have to finish packing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One Suitcase, Sixteen Years

The last time I was packing this suitcase for a trip to China, it was full of diapers and baby formula. Packed between the bulkier items was the unscannable subtext of near-hysteria at that thought that anyone, let alone a four-month-old, was going to be relying on me (me!) for motherly care and maintenance for the foreseeable future.

Emma, in that way she has of speeding through every life event, was ready about six months before it was even reasonable to expect a placement, according to the adoption experts. “Let’s get this show on the road,” I can almost imagine her saying, giving her diaper a hearty hitching up and exerting her considerable influence on life events. I’ve watched her win too many raffles and sweepstakes not to consider the possibility of telekensis exerted on that particular set of paperwork from the confines of a certain crib in the Wuhan Foundling Hospital. Some party hack in Beijing found himself impelled to place her file on top of that one from Minneapolis, and a family was created.

Back in the states, parent preparation was a one-month whirlwind of packing, paperwork, traveling and waiting. On the flight over, I read a bagful of baby and child care books, which only convinced me that she’d choke and suffocate the minute I held her, since that seemed to be the only things the babies in those books ever did. And, after about a thousand years of waiting, someone put her in my arms, and my body began to vibrate with the electrical current of energy that is the essence of Emma Bao Wei.

When that old suitcase was hauled from the attic on Sunday, there was still a faint residue of the sticker that some airport official had placed on it back then. Beijing. Wuhan. Guangzhou. Seattle. Finally, home to Minneapolis. This coming Sunday, the suitcase heads back to Beijing. And I'll be reunited with that girl I carried off the plane and into her new homeland on the sixth of July, 1995. “Well, it’s HER Independence Day, that’s for sure,” the U.S. customs official in Seattle had said.

He had no idea.

My biggest worries then: 1)that I’d drop her, 2)that one of her diapers would be so repulsive that I’d faint dead away and 3)that she’d cry in the night and I’d be sleeping so soundly that I wouldn’t hear her. When I enumerated these fears to my Mom, probably wringing my hands as I did, she took a long drag on her Chesterfield and finally said, “A lot is going to happen, but those aren’t the things.”

I had no idea.

I think back on those fears now. I was worried I’d drop her, that I’d let her out of my control and allow her to get hurt. She is so far from my control now (and maybe always has been), that all I can do is pray. Too bad I don’t smoke, or I’d try some long drags on Chesterfields, too.

I thought her humanness, at least the smellier side of it, would be too much for me.  And now I know that there is nothing she can ever do or say or be that will make me ever look away from her, not if she needs my help in cleaning up the mess she’s made.

I thought I wouldn’t hear her, that I would fail to rally to her side when she needed me most. The jury is still out on that one, I guess, and will be for the rest of my mothering career, no matter how much she tells me that she’s an adult and I’m ready to be retired. On that score, all I can do, once again, is pray:  Dear God, please let me hear when she’s crying in the night, wherever and whenever night comes upon her. Please let me know how to help. She is so far away, and the help these days requires something much more skillful than a bottle or diaper change.

I have a new worry, now that I’m in what she considers to be the sunset of this maternal gig. It's that I’ll allow her to get lost. Not lost at the playground or the zoo, but lost from herself. What I want most for her is to remember to stay on the clear and true path that’s waiting right in front of her. I worry that she’ll stop having faith in her own invincibility, which, however misguided for any other person, is totally logical for her. It’s been powering her up with supercharged strength for lo these many years.

What was packed between the baby clothes back then, in addition to the hysteria, was one thin layer of assurance. I knew, more clearly than I’d ever known anything in my life, that there was a kid on the other side of the world who needed a mother, and that, for whatever crazy reason fate had decided to throw us together, that mother was going to be me. I hope that she can find that level of assurance in her own life someday -- that she can head off on a path and know, always know, that it’s what she needs to be doing.

I knew my path was with her. I never looked back.

And if she ever gets lost, I hope she remembers that, as much as an adult such as herself doesn’t need me, I’ll still be hanging around, ready to help her when she’s crying in the night.  I can pack a suitcase right away and make my way to her side. In fact, I even know which one I'll use.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Extraordinary Ordinary

I think the magic started with the Cinderella-shoe, strangers-on-an-escalator moment at the IDS Center, but there was so much about that day that was purely extraordinary-ordinary. We look back now and say that it was a “great day,” but it wasn’t even close to being a full 24 hours of something special – more like five hours and change. It was just enough, though -- not only to make us happy at the moment, but to turn itself into a snow globe memory that we’ve been picking up more and more in this current, very different, holiday season.

The particulars: December 10, 2010. Emma had a performance with the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony, to be held over the lunch hour at the IDS Center downtown. With the sort of what-the-heck laxness that my children will probably use as Exhibit A of my poor parenting choices when they’re older, I told Mary Katherine that she could skip school in order to hear her sister play. We bundled ourselves and the cello into my Beetle, no small feat, and I managed to get us to the right spot downtown.

Everyone in our little group was carrying something – Santa hat, purse, cello, music stand. So it’s understandable that, as we arrived at the escalator to part ways with Emma, who was heading to a basement-level green room, that she had stepped on and begun to descend before Mary Katherine realized she was still holding the black heels that Emma needed for the performance. “Emma, your shoes!” she called out, and we saw a swivel from that dark, shiny head, as she considered how to get back to us. The escalator was jammed with lunch hour crowds, and it was impossible to turn back. 

And then our heroes arrived. Two young men, just stepping on to the escalator themselves, turned back at the sound of Mary’s cry, and reached out their hands in unison. “Toss ‘em here; we’ll get them to her,” one of them said. Mary lobbed one shoe into each outstretched hand. They arrived at the bottom and dutifully turned the shoes over to the lovely young woman, dressed all in black, standing patiently beside her cello. “Here you go, Cinderella,” one of them said, and they headed off without another word.

Mary Katherine and I sat on a balcony and looked down at the orchestra during the performance. We were cozy on the floor, flattening our cheeks against the acrylic guard, feeling the sound drift up. Afterwards, with the cello safely stowed back in the car, we tooled around Macy’s, trying on hats, squirting each other with perfume and wandering happily, and aimlessly, from department to department. I was able to make my favorite parenting statement of all time: “Take your time; we aren’t in any hurry.”

They were not just the oldest kids in the Santa Line. Because it was a weekday afternoon, they were the only kids who could see over the railing, or write their names in cursive. I had told my girls I wouldn’t buy them lunch unless they sat on Santa’s lap. “Have you been good?” he asked, a bit ironically, and I held back the urge to try a full Bette Davis retort: “Santa, you have no idea.”

 They’d done what I asked, so I bought them lunch at the Sky Room. We sat together at a small table, looking out at a snowstorm brewing over the late afternoon city. And we laughed together, over nothing, just happy to be together and to have no agenda, schedule, tournament, rehearsal or competition to attend, just this once. After Emma had written all over her cup, and the bus boy had been truly terrorized by our loud hoots, we gathered up our things and found the elevator to the first floor. A quick stop at Candyland for ride-home treats, and we headed home.  

And that’s it. Those were small things we did that day, not momentous ones. We attended a performance, sat on Santa’s lap and laughed together over a meal. But one year later, it seems that the day is still sending us a clear, strong signal, reminding us that we really do matter to one another, and that we have a bond which time, distance and circumstance can’t break. 

 For many families, their traditions seem rooted in the rigid belief that if anything is ever allowed to vary from the approved script, everything will fall apart.  If all my kids remember of our traditions is that we had a lot of fun one December day in the Sky Room, watching the snow as it fell over the city, that’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How to Tell the Truth

I'd like to share a news flash that hit me after several years into my corporate career. It was one of those Life Memos that seemed to have been delivered to all the rich kids’ houses, but skipped over the chain-link-fence, Virgin-Mary-statue-in-the-front-yard estates of my Missouri hometown:

Just because you’re thinking it, you don’t have to say it.

Self censorship was not a concept I understood or even saw in action until I began to have grown-up jobs -- defined, for me, as places that employed more men than women (the public library and the all-girls’ high school didn’t count). Once I began to elbow my way into advertising agencies and corporations, I realized that not everyone conducted their lives in the manner of my parents.

Meaning: Sometimes, they shut up.

At my house, talking was a competitive sport, with top honors to the loud and the fast. With my current perspective on what an incredibly crappy life she had, I realize that the telephone was a life-line for my mother, connecting her with Eileen, Thelma, Marcella and all her other anachronistically monikered friends. I don’t remember any quiet from the phone when she was on it, so that means she didn’t waste much time listening. But man, could she talk. She was a devotee of the Continuous Loop School of Human Interaction, meaning that as the point of her story wound to a conclusion, it started up again at the introduction, through the insertion of the magic three-word set, Like I Say, which allowed for a complete reboot of all previously uttered information. It could go on for days.

My father, as he did in the rest of his life, relied on brute force and lung power to maintain the conversational top spot. Visitors would be treated to verbal displays that were only logical for a man who hogged everything, including food, stuff and physical space. He needed it all, and he never had enough. In our house, he even hogged the airwaves. “Listen, uhhhhhhhh,” he would shout to new arrivals, the “uhhhhhhh” serving as a noise placeholder until he could think of something to actually say. No one ever bothered to interrupt.

So I grew up believing that talking was winning, and that each of my brain’s thoughts deserved a complete airing in front of as many people as possible, often repeatedly.  I only learned to behave any differently because I watched some skillful corporate operators in action, and I picked up a few tips, most of them, tragically, far too late. So when Emma recently asked me for advice about how to talk when what you said has implications on others’ lives, I could only offer some guidelines, most of which I’ve usually failed to follow.

She was asking for the advice because there had been a rule-breaking incident at her school. With 57 kids who are living together in a foreign country, their lives are a 3D Venn diagram of who knew what, who did what, and who like, should have like, spoken up sooner. Emma proclaimed her innocence, but told me that she anticipated a few official questions being lobbed her way (they call the principal “Comrade,” if that gives you any idea) and wanted to know what she should say. “Write down some rules for me,” she instructed, “So I can remember them Monday morning.”

Here they are. If I could go back in time and give these rules to my twenty-year-old self, and follow them, I’d be writing this from my penthouse at Columbus Circle, just before I headed off to another fulfilling day at the Kendrick Foundation. In the meantime, I hope these help her a bit.

How to Tell the Truth
  • The one who is NOT talking is the one with all the power.
  • Just because there is a pause in conversation, you don't have to fill it. It is actually physically possible to sit silently and make eye contact. Even better, it drives other people nuts and they usually start to babble.
  • Just because someone asks you a question, you don't have to answer it. I worked on a project once with a customer who was a master of this. I would ask him a direct question, and he would smile, look me in the eyes, and begin to talk about a totally different topic. The smile was the secret to this ploy’s success, I realized. He arranged his face to say, “I will be happy to answer your question! Look at my face, I LOVE telling you the truth.”
  • Tell the truth as it relates to YOU and don't surmise or offer opinions about others' actions, thoughts or motivations.
  • Truth comes in many package sizes. It can be delivered in everything from a mini snack-pack to a jumbo Warehouse Club pallet. When you might be getting someone else in trouble by sharing a whole lot of truth, it’s okay to hand over just the minimum, at least as a start. Don’t lead with the jumbo size, ever.
I realize that for most people of even moderate levels of success, this advice seems on the “breathe in, but then remember to breathe out” variety. You’re probably thinking that someone who didn’t even know this much was not very well-prepared for corporate life. But don’t worry. I made up for it in other areas. When it came to an issue I’d never encountered in my family before, salary negotiations, I decided to approach the one person I knew who held a job that didn’t require union dues – my brother. He offered this gem to a young and stupid female just starting out to make a living as a writer: “Just say, ‘Mr. Employer, I know you’re a fair man, so I’ll let you decide what you think I’m worth, and I’ll be glad to work for whatever salary you think best,’” he suggested.

Armed with a worldview like this, I quickly ascended the corporate ladder, gained a huge circle of friends and had to beat the boyfriends away with a stick.

Or something like that.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Nail Polish Remover, Kit Kat Bars and this month’s Glamour magazine: The evolution of a modern CARE Package

I can’t imagine that the first French recipients, back in 1946, could get themselves too excited over what was in those packages. Opening them up with anticipation, only to find SPAM and liver loaf? ("Ou se trouve le baguette et le vin rouge?") But they were probably hungry enough not to notice. After the first shipment of 10,000, the bundles from the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), were sent all over the world for the next twenty years.

“Care package” is one of those phrases that has ceased to be associated with its original acronym, perhaps because use the verb the acronym depicted is so much nicer than a mouthful like Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere. It’ easier to understand this:  I care, so I send you a package.

I’ve been gaining some personal experience in this world of needs, wants and postal scales, since I have a daughter who will be living in Beijing for the next six months. Her first couple weeks there were, from what I understand, a heady mix of new world, new life and a fair amount of shaking the dust of Minneapolis off her virtual sandals. It was all looking forward, with no energy for looking back.

Then, as the days passed and the mind-blowing new began to assume some aspects of routine, she began to think about peanut butter. And Cinnamon Toast Crunch. And Kit Kat bars. And she began to assemble The List. Soon, I was participating in a 6,000-mile scavenger hunt, tracking down nail polish remover (“There is not one bottle of it in the entire country.”) and lip balm (“It has to be vanilla; the raspberry kind makes me puke.”)

When the 57 kids in her program returned from the Autumn Holiday, three weeks into the program, it became apparent that all of them had voiced similar longings for the small, tangible items they’d forgotten on their mid-August packing lists. When they returned to school that Monday, after the baffling-but-required visits to the country to pick fruit with their host families, there was a pile of brown-paper-wrapped shoeboxes, sent from Atlanta, Sheboygan, Brooklyn … and one, thank God, from Minneapolis, which arrived in time.

That was the first, but of course there have been many more. The “Operation: St. Nicholas Day” mission included Christmas socks, tiny candy canes and homemade candied walnuts that so baffled the inspectors who opened the package that school’s principal got a phone call from Comrade Postal Inspector. “Is this candy?” he asked, and Comrade Becker assured him that it was.

At about $50 for a well-packed shoebox and $15 for a crammed-to-the-gills envelope (funny, didn’t know envelopes had gills), I’ve been spending more lately on care package postage then the contents of the packages themselves. But I’ve been learning that the value of what’s inside is not really important. Of much more value is the package’s backstory:  someone found me these things I have been missing, or that I might like, assembled them and drove to the post office to stand in line – all so that I’d feel better ten days later, when I opened it.

The stream of packages has slowed these days, as the students’ families are preparing for holiday visits. In 18 days, I’ll be kissing the top of my daughter’s head, and that, I hope, will be more valuable to her than all the nail polish remover in the world.

But just in case, I’m bringing along an extra bag of those candied walnuts, Chinese inspectors be damned.

See you soon, Emma.